Ask the Critic: What It Means to Be "Essential"


In response to the most recent Seattle's Essential Dishes post (lauding the short rib at Crush), I got a note from Dawn offering some criticism of the direction she sees the project heading. Because it was (for a change) a rational and well-reasoned argument--and brought up some of the central questions of the project itself--I thought it worth re-printing and answering here. Dawn wrote:

"I have to say that I first thought that this "Seattle Essential Dishes" project was an intriguing one. However, it is lacking in execution. Sheehan, perhaps out of laziness or simply because he is still a newcomer here, has taken to recounting his favorite dishes from that week's restaurant review. This makes for pretty boring writing and also shows Sheehan's lack of experience in our city.

Don't get me wrong, I do understand how difficult it might be to explore our city's food with the limitation of three, maybe four (?!) meals a day, especially when the critic is also expected to also blog prolifically. But Sheehan's picks for Seattle Essential Dishes lack the breadth and depth that such a project requires. They also lack a sense of the unique foods or experiences that make Seattle stand out (poutine at Steelhead was a good example of this, though--try focusing on some local anomalies like geoduck, Marination Mobile, or Elemental--though Elemental is certainly debatable...I like/hate it depending on mood, season, day)

And while I am writing, just a word about Beth's. Yes, it is a Seattle institution, and yes, we've all spent a drunken night or two there, but for those of us who've lived here more than a couple years, it's pretty banal and not really worthy of the tremendous amount of page space it received here.

Just my two cents. I think you started off on the right track, but still aren't getting to the heart of what Seattle has to offer."

First Dawn, thank you. Glad to see you're reading and giving some thought to the project. I, too, think it an intriguing way to get at the deep and vital edible heart of a city that is both new to me and big enough to contain surprises even for the most jaded local. But in answer to your central question, it is neither laziness nor little yellow duckling newness that causes me to choose the places I do for inclusion. You mention that I've been using a lot of dishes from recent reviews, and that's true. Generally on Wednesdays--provided that week's review is of a restaurant deserving of a second mention, or contains a unique dish that I think falls into the category of "essential"--I will dip into the well a second time.

I did it this week with Crush because I felt that the short rib--being a benchmark dish on an ever-changing menu, and the kind of thing ordered and eaten by regulars even as they're gushing about the way the kitchen changes the menu so frequently--was a perfect example of chef Jason Wilson's equipoise. Here is an award-winning chef, running one of the best, most popular fine dining restaurants in the city. If he wanted, he could write menus that were just for him--filled only with the things that he loves and he wants to cook. And while he does do that (to a point), he also has kept this one dish on the menu through countless variations simply because it is what the people want. The short rib is a mark of stability on an otherwise chaotic board, in a restaurant where change is the norm. And that's noteworthy.

I also did it with the poutine from Steelhead Diner because I loved the poutine there and I don't think that there's many folks who'd be able to argue against Kevin Davis's restaurant being one of Seattle's defining addresses (I'd heard about Steelhead long before I ever considered moving here). And I did it with the jiao zi from Mandarin Chef because the jiao zi from Mandarin Chef are just awesome.

But I think what's more telling here than the reviews I did decide to draw on for Essential Dishes were those that I didn't. I liked Chiso when I reviewed it, but found nothing there that was particularly essential to an understanding of Seattle. And I loved the Silver Fork, but didn't list its pancakes or eggs among the city's essential dishes because they just...weren't. I choose the restaurants I do for reviews because they are interesting in some way--whether for their history, their newness, their cuisine, their stories or their crowds. Sometimes (but not all the time), they're also interesting in a broader sense. Sometimes they say something about the city and its appetites. That's when they make the jump from the review page to the Essential Dishes section. I'm sorry if that bores you, Dawn, but it really is a balancing act.

Oh, and by the way? I have done Marination Mobile. I wrote about the kalbi tacos. And I'll be glad to talk about geoduck just as soon as I find a place that works with geoduck in such a way that it says something about the tastes of Seattleites as a whole.

Finally, Beth's. I'm going to say this again because I think it bears repeating: "Essential" does not necessarily mean "good." It certainly does not mean "best." What it means is a place which shines a light on some aspect of the city's tastes, habits or desires. It means a restaurant or a dish that is sometimes loved, occasionally loathed, but absolutely known . An essential dish is one that represents a single facet of the dining scene or stands as a representative plate for certain appetites. I don't think there's anyone who would say Beth's doesn't qualify on those grounds. You said it yourself: "Yes, it is a Seattle institution, and yes, we've all spent a drunken night or two there..."

That alone would be reason enough for me to include it. So I make no apologies there.

Still, all that aside, Dawn, I appreciate your taking the time to plunk down your two cents. Hope you'll stick with me as the project continues. And in the meantime, since you seem to have some fairly strong opinions about what is essential in the city of Seattle, why not shout some of them out? Tell me what you love, tell me why, and I'll take it under advisement. As you said, I'm just one man with a limited number of hours in the day and only so many notches on my belt. But I promise that I'm willing to try anything once.

And most things twice.

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